Hell­cats, Hell­divers, and Avengers

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking - —STEPHEN JOINER

NEVER WAS THERE a sin­gle-day aerial thump­ing like the June 19, 1944 Bat­tle of the Philip­pine Sea. In a flotilla 40 miles wide that in­cluded 15 air­craft car­ri­ers, U.S. Navy Task Force 58 ar­rived to es­tab­lish an is­land base on Saipan for B-29 Su­per­fortresses bound for Ja­pan. The Ja­panese Mo­bile Fleet in­ter­vened with nine car­ri­ers. Ad­dress­ing his pi­lots, task force com­man­der Ad­mi­ral Marc Mitscher was suc­cinct: “Cut their damned throats.” By night­fall on the 19th, Ja­pan had lost at least two-thirds of the 373 car­rier air­craft com­mit­ted. One of two Ja­panese car­ri­ers sunk that day had launched air­craft against Pearl Har­bor. Amer­i­can losses were 29 air­craft plus nom­i­nal dam­age to a sin­gle bat­tle­ship. On the to-do list of 20th Air Force B-29s, Tokyo was pen­ciled in.

On June 19, 450 Hell­cats launched from the flat­tops of Task Force 58. F6F pi­lots owned the sky, hung cur­tains, and fur­nished it. The fighter’s bat­tery of six Brown­ing .50cal­iber ma­chine guns shred­ded ap­prox­i­mately 250 Ja­panese air­craft. How lop­sided was the fight? Hell­cat ace Alex Vraciu launched from the Lex­ing­ton’s wooden deck and downed six Ja­panese “Judy” dive-bombers in less than eight min­utes. (The Hell­cat’s meaner brother, the Bearcat, ar­rived too late for com­bat.)

Grum­man-de­signed and Gm-built, the TBM Avenger, a sin­gle-engine, three-seat tor­pedo bomber, joined the bat­tle. Though the heav­i­est sin­gle-engine air­plane of World War II, the sub- stalk­ing Avengers oc­ca­sion­ally be­came dog­fight­ers on June 19. Out­num­bered by a rov­ing pack of nim­ble Ze­ros, two Avengers deftly gained po­si­tional ad­van­tage and dis­patched four no-doubt-sur­prised ban­dits.

The Cur­tiss Hell­diver’s con­tri­bu­tion on June 19: cra­ter­ing the Ja­panese fleet’s re­fu­el­ing airstrips on Guam. Ev­ery Hell­diver packed a 2,000pound bomb or tor­pedo punch. On June 20, 52 of the dive bombers struck the Mo­bile Fleet. Ten were lost, but one de­liv­ered a di­rect hit to the flag­ship Zuikaku, which sur­vived, only to be sunk four months later in the Bat­tle of Leyte Gulf. Fly­ing on fumes, Hell­divers and Hell­cats re­turned to the task force in dark­ness. Only five of the fuel-starved Hell­divers found a flat­top. The re­main­der ditched, while res­cuers scram­bled to haul crews out of the dark Pa­cific.

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